Mentor or Coach – What’s the difference?

This is a subject that has been bugging me a lot. As a writer I see loads of targeted adverts for marketing courses, Facebook ad courses and mailing list building courses designed to help an author build their platform. Each of these courses comes with (for me) a pretty hefty price tag (between $600-2000 for some). I don’t resent paying for training that I think will benefit me and my business in the future, and I even spent over £1000 last year on several courses on ‘How to build your mailing list’ and grow your audience. I know I can run the fee through my company expenses, but when your income is middling to low, that is still a heavy hit to take on the wallet in one go. I am happy to say I have learned a lot and am still learning more as I plough my way through the material. But over the past 12 months, I have been inundated with marketing emails from people who run similar courses and charge even higher fees for them.

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As I said, I have no problem parting with my hard earned money for training that I know will benefit me and my business as a writer.

However I have become a bit ‘course weary’ in recent months. I realised I needed someone who knows what they’re talking about to help me grow as a writer and author and help me avoid the rocks…or the shit as I prefer to call it. 

But do I need a mentor or a business coach? Do I even know what the difference between a mentor and a coach is? No I didn’t. I was confused and as it turns out, I wasn’t alone.

Mentoring 1

Talking to other writers

It seems many writers (and other people!) get very confused as to the difference between a mentor and a coach. Like any social media user with a question on their hands I received a lot of responses to a poll I opened when I asked the following:

Should you pay for a professional mentor?

Only 34% said yes with the remaining 66% voting with an emphatic ‘NO’. But the question triggered a plethora of comments with equal numbers of people arguing for and against. Some of the reasons either side are below:

Yes you should pay for a mentor
  • The mentor is providing you invaluable experience that you can benefit from
  • Why shouldn’t you pay for a service that provides you a career benefit?
No you should never pay for a mentor
  • A mentor is not a business coach
  • A mentor charging you thousands should basically be sorting out your closet, your life and generally setting you targets and goals to mark you on as you go. This is coaching not mentoring
  • A mentor is someone willing to share the benefit of their experience to aid your development. It is informal and requires an equal amount of give and take from both the mentor and mentee. This relationship can be hugely beneficial to both parties who can get a lot out of the process

I think it was that last point that really helped begin to clarify things for me. It also helped explain the level of global confusion on this subject. People are using two different words for a similar process when I believe they should be trying to distinguish them.

Ugh…I confused myself just reading back that last sentence.

Mentoring 2

My friend and professional playwright David Lane helped clarify things even further. When I asked him if I should pay for a mentor he said:

“No, you shouldn’t pay. The mentors should be paid, and having been one myself I realised it actually required specific training (in my field of expertise) so I wasn’t just creating a tribe of ‘monkey-say-monkey-do’ versions of myself, and it’s not as easy as advice giving if you’re doing it properly. There are many support schemes via theatres and playwriting charities that exist solely to allow unsolicited applications to mentoring. So the mentee doesn’t have to pay.”

So what is the difference (if any!)?

Thanks to David, a clearer definition was forming in my mind. But I went even further and decided to find out what the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) had to say on the matter. It helped that my fiancée is an HR professional in the UK so I was able to get a foot in the door. According to the CIPD there is a significant difference between mentoring and coaching. They also admit there is a lack of clear definition between coaching professionals…which is probably where all this confusion comes from.

Mentoring (according to the CIPD), is different from coaching on the following grounds:
  • It is a relationship in which a more experienced colleague uses his or her greater knowledge and understanding of the workplace to support the development of a junior or inexperienced member of staff
  • Mentoring tends to be a longer term relationship than a coaching one
  • Mentoring tends to work best when it moves beyond the directive approach of a senior colleague ‘telling you how it is and what you should do’
  • Reverse mentoring (where a more junior colleague mentors a senior leader) can also be effective in encouraging sharing and learning across generations and/or between different role levels

The CIPD seem to agree with David. The mentor should be paid, but the mentor should not have to pay for the privilege. I also discovered that many leading organisations assign mentors to less experienced members of their team in order to aid their development. It seems to benefit both mentor and mentee and encourages retention. I don’t know about you, but all of this makes me think there is definitely a difference between a mentor and a coach.

would-i-say-this

So where does that leave me (and millions of other writers looking for help)?

Our profession (along with many others) is slightly different to the standard 9-5 workplace. We don’t always have a senior colleague available (or willing) for us to draw upon for their greater knowledge and experience. We read a lot. Our mentors are often the authors whose books we love and admire. We often have to rely on our own guts to get the job done, our own skill at researching and seeking out the people we think will be valuable for us to know, and have the balls to ask someone to be our mentor. There are tons of online resources available for us to use, but many do come with a hefty price tag that not every writer can afford. But as David pointed out, there are other ways to find a mentor without having to shell out thousands of dollars that you don’t have.

Personally having conducted a lot of research on this topic, I have decided not to pay for a mentor. I am however open to paying a coach to help me develop in areas like editing, character development, plotting, marketing, accounting etc. To me a mentor sounds like one of those invaluable resources that you can find if you go looking in the right places. The fee is time and commitment to the process and that is something anyone can choose to give if they feel it will benefit both parties. I hope to find one in the near future.

I don’t blame anybody out to make a living off coaching others – hell, who am I to criticise professionals trying to earn off something they’ve studied and trained to deliver? However, I do believe there are individuals and organisations that need to be careful and clear about what their service is, and what they promise to deliver to a confused and often very poor buyer.

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About the Author

John is an award winning writer, author and public speaker. He loves science fiction, fantasy and horror stories. His work has appeared in Vector Magazine, Ink Pantry, Sci-Fi Bloggers, The Huffington Post and more. His short fantasy 'Thanks for Applying' won an Honourable Mention Award in the Writers of the Future competition in 2017. John has spoken at several events including the Nine Worlds Geekfest in London and delivers masterclasses on ending mental health stigma in the workplace for Time to Change.